Narrative In Art

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Christopher Nolan

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Nolan and Narrative

Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker, but more than a filmmaker, he’s a storyteller.  The art of storytelling has been around for centuries.  Many have written about this refined practice from Greek and German philosophers Aristotle and Schopenhauer to authors that have a more scientific perspective like Lisa Zunshine.  Nolan pushes the medium of film past its traditional boundaries and effectively stimulates the evolution of narrative.

Nolan is a master storyteller challenging his audience and his medium.  In Poetics Aristotle writes about the sequence in which a story is normally presented:

And a whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end: a beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, but after which it is natural for another thing to be or come to be; an end is the opposite, something that is itself naturally after something else, either necessarily or for the most part, with no other thing naturally after it; and a middle is that which is itself both after something else and has another thing after it.  Therefore, well-organized stories must neither begin from wherever they may happen to nor end where they may happen to, but must have the look that has been described. (30)

In Memento, Nolan uses his keen understanding of chronology and gives the audience a more challenging, but more elegant narrative.  Memento plays sequentially, showing one scene after another after another and has a beginning, middle, and end, but the story is not handed to us in that same chronological order.  At first glance, the story of Leonard Shelby, Nolan’s protagonist, is given to the audience in reverse.  The opening sequence of the film leads us and actively tells us the narrative is being inverted by playing, literally, in reverse.  On first viewing, the audience believes that the end of the story is the beginning of the film and the end of the movie is the beginning of the narrative, but Nolan crafts a story with such finesse that only after careful analysis does the audience realize the story’s true parabolic rhythm.

The journey unravels from the first scene in color and cuts to the actual or narrative beginning, which is in grayscale.  The rhythm plays on in the film, back and forth, color to black and white, until the two beginnings meet at the apex, or the middle of the narrative creating a single story arch, but its unity isn’t realized by the audience (at least it wasn’t realized by myself until many viewings later). The apex or middle of the narrative is the moment Leonard Shelby drives up to the tattoo parlor, which is when the credits roll.  This challenging film left me speechless.  I can only describe this feature as the evolution of filmmaking and the refining of narrative.

In Following, Nolan’s first feature, Nolan experiments with the timeline of the story.  Nolan’s success in Memento developed from his experimentation in FollowingMemento was a new revelation in film and in narrative.  Showing how our thoughts could be rationalized visually.

The Prestige, like Memento, plays sequentially. The film plays but the arrangement of the images are not in any decipherable order upon first viewing until the drowning of Hugh Jackman’s character Robert Angier, and trial of Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale).  Unlike the Memento, The Prestige has no chronological pattern.  The story unfolds not through casual action, but through recollections of the characters.  Using this technique The Prestige accentuates our perception of reality.  Memories, like thoughts, don’t always follow a chronological pattern and are often connected by a series of logic.  I, as an audience member engaged in the story, had no footing when it came to the chronology of the feature.  I only knew the film had just begun.  But I was able to follow the movie by logically connecting one sequence to another.  Nolan employs the audience to actively participate by analyzing the story.  The sequential order of Nolan’s movies have grown beyond the Aristotelian model and transformed it.  Nolan is aware of film versus narrative.  In The Prestige, just as in Memento, he pushes and challenges the sequential order of the story.

In Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction Theory of Mind and the Novel, Zunshine covers the “Theory of Mind,” or “mind-reading,” and among these are “Levels of Intentionality.”  Allow me to elaborate by summarizing Zunshine’s definition of “mind-reading.”  Zunshine states that “mind-reading” is a common activity, that’s not telepathy, but “Mind-reading,” according to Zunshine, is the ability to read another’s emotions through nonverbal communication.  The realization of nonverbal communication is the awareness of a conscious outside of the observer’s consciousness.  Zunshine’s written comprehension of consciousness develops and also leads into the “Levels of Intentionality.” Zunshine analyzes “Levels of Intentionality” in great depth, writing:

A representation of a mind as represented by a mind as represented by yet another mind will thus be supported by cognitive processes distinct from… cognitive process supporting a mental representation…(29)

In The Prestige, after the trial and imprisonment of Alfred Borden, Borden receives the diary of rival magician and victim Robert Angier.  Angier writes about his experience reading the diary Angier stole from Borden.  And later in the story it is revealed (while Borden is reading) that Borden’s diary was given to Angier intentionally to deceive Angier by Angier’s former lover and accomplice Olivia (Scarlet Johansson), and even later we learn that Borden’s copy of Angier’s diary was also given to deliberately deceive Borden by one of Angier’s representatives. Nolan uses several “Levels of Intentionality,” and according to Zunshine, with whom I agree, to appeal to our “mind-reading capabilities.”  The discovery and revelations made through out The Prestige enlighten and excite Nolan’s audience.

Beyond The Prestige in levels of intentionality is Inception, a film that delves deep into layers of dreams by taking the audience into dreams within dreams.  Inception follows our protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an extractor on the run and searching for a way to return home.  Funny thing about the character’s name Cobb; Cobb is a reference back to Nolan’s first feature film, Following.  But in Inception Cobb is an extractor.  Extractor’s search minds and extract information from the secure crevices of the mind in dreams, like dream thieves.  In the film Cobb is asked to incept an idea rather than extract for the opportunity to return home.  Cobb’s target is a businessman, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy).  Cobb pulls together a team of players to complete this mission.

Ariadne (Ellen Page) is introduced to our protagonist to help his team with their operation.  Ariadne, in Inception, aids Cobb in his return from the labyrinth of his mind and assists Cobb in his battle against Mal (Marion Cotillard). Ariadne, in Greek mythology, aids Theseus in his return from the Labyrinth built in Crete and assists in his battle against the Minotaur.

After the team is prepped, the moment arises when they can move in on their target.  Fischer is drugged by Cobb and dragged into a dream.  And although Fischer is the target and his subconscious fills the dream, we find that we are actually in the mind of the chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), another team member of Cobb’s.  Yusuf’s dream is the first level of which we are aware.  Cobb’s plan requires the team to dive deeper, meaning the team enters a second dream.  This time we are in a hotel, the dream’s owner is Arthur (Joesph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb’s collaborator and right hand man.  Breaking it down slowly, it’s not that challenging to follow.  In real-time, as this is all being revealed to the audience, it’s a little unclear.  The group is with Fischer on a plane when they put the target to sleep and enter Yusuf’s mind because they’re being chased by Fischer’s subconscious after capturing Fischer.  Yusuf is on the run and the group dives down into Arthur’s dream, another level of dream consciousness with each level being affected by the previous.  Technically speaking, we are down three levels if you count the films continuity, or reality as the story proposes it, and the two dream levels.  The band continues further still on the run from Fischer’s subconscious.  With only three remaining operatives and Fischer, the team finds themselves in mind of Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger.  As the group and Fischer’s proceedings continue, the world is not only affected by Fischer’s subconscious but it’s revealed that Cobb’s subconscious comes into play causing the mission to go awry. This mistake launches Fisher into limbo, a level of the dream without control, and leads the last two players, Cobb and Ariadne, to follow him into the last layer. These two layers can be considered the third and forth or forth and fifth layers of the dreams depending on how you look at it.

Now we’ll break down all the layers in real-time, which is still comprehensible but as Zunshine covered, “ [a] representation of a mind as represented by a mind as represented…” (29).  The group is on a plane in the film’s continuity. They enters Yusuf’s dream of the city, but are attacked by Fischer’s subconscious, and dive into Arthur.  The plan leads them down into Eames’ dream while Eames, Yusuf and Arthur are fighting Fischer’s subconscious on all levels.  Yusuf and Arthur continue with the intent to wake everyone up at a predetermined moment so they all wake up before the flight lands. When a problem occurs and a figure from Cobb’s subconscious forces Cobb and Ariadne to head down into the last layer of limbo.  This puts Eames in the position with Yusuf and Arthur each fighting on their levels to protect and wake the sleeping party members.  Whether the story becomes difficult to follow or not Zunshine claims the appeal is really to our “mind-reading capabilities,” practicing to enhance our brains and keep our minds sharp.

I do believe the challenge attracts me; I would say it’s Nolan’s awareness of film that draws me back.  Nolan’s aware he is using the film medium, a fake consciousness, to depict a surreal world, but he does so to unearth the truth.  In Schopenhauer’s essay On Aesthetics, he states, “…Is intrinsic to the work of art to present the form alone, without the material, and to do so manifestly and obviously.” (160:5) Schopenhauer, writing long before film, justifies Nolan’s utilization of the medium because without the realization it’s art, the audience can’t differentiate the “Idea or pure form” from the medium.  Without the realization of the medium, the works would not allure and attract, but horrify and sadden, or even disgust.  Seeing the danger and action confronted by Leonard DiCaprio in Inception running through the city of Mombasa excites and entices the viewer.  A film recording done of an execution by men with a handheld camcorder is quite the opposite when it is real, unraveling life before our eyes.  This is the honest truth, and it horrifies, saddens and disgust.  Or even the filming of a child slipping from railing as he attempts to slide down a staircase on the handrail forces us to cringe upon the realization that the pain that person endured was real.  Neither of these examples are considered art.

Nolan utilizes the magic of film giving the audience only a taste of everything without foregoing too much, making the audience aware of the fake medium but revealing a genuine truth.  A cut to a Parisian Café allows the audience to believe our characters arrived at their destination logically and that they’re dining in a city familiar to us. Later, it is revealed to the audience the character’s actual method of transportation was a dream.  Nolan uses a cut to move us from scene to scene fully aware that the audience has learned to make logical assumptions about a features continuity based on the exposure to previous films.  Nolan’s breaking of the audience’s assumptions heightens the viewer’s awareness of themselves as a viewer and intensifies their awareness of the art they are viewing. We learn we exit and enter the dream world throughout the film.  Nolan edits the audience into a dream.  He uses this technique to force the audience to decipher reality from the dream and exploit the story by capitalizing on the medium itself.

Nolan implements his editing techniques throughout all his films using editing and sequential order of scenes to remind the audience of the medium.  And through this technique, Schopenhauer would speculate, we can decipher the “pure form” separated from the artwork.  Memento uses cuts to emphasize Leonard Shelby’s memory.  Nolan rationalizes Shelby’s recollections visually unifying them via the protagonist’s narrative. Nolan overlaps scenes in Memento taking several minutes from a previous sequence and replays them revealing an excerpt further in the main character’s past.  This replaying of a previous scene orients the audience using a pattern of logic.  The Prestige cuts between the awareness of our rivals.  Nolan edits us into the lives of Robert Angier and rival magician Alfred Borden.  And Inception follows the protagonist Cobb, and the consciousness of the other supporting characters in their dreams, cutting from dream to reality, and between dreams.  Nolan challenges the audience and the art of film, never clearly identifying the transition between reality and the dream.  Nolan pushes film, progressing and evolving the medium, and refining the art of the narrative, taking it beyond its traditions into the next stage of storytelling.

Works Cited and Bibliography

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2006. Print.

Capps, Robert and Patrick Di Justo. “Inception, Explained.” Wired Magazine. 29 Nov. 2010. Wired Dec. 2010. Web. 22 April 2011.

Nolan, Christopher, dir. Memento. Newmarket Films, 2001. Film.

—.  The Prestige. Buena Vista Pictures, 2006. Film.

—.  Inception. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2010. Film.

—.  Following. Zeitgeist Films, 1999. VHS.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On Aesthetics.” Essays and Aphorisms. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin Group, 2004. Print.

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006. Print.

Christopher Nolan is a London native, born in 1970.  Nolan studied English literature at University College London.  The filmmaker creates films that please critics and audiences alike.  Nolan is slowly becoming the next great filmmaker in cinematic history, known for crafting his films with a masterful touch.

The Prestige and Memento both challenge linear narrative using very different methods.  Each film presents the information out of sequential order refining the art of storytelling and its complexities.

And a whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end: a beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, but after which it is natural for another thing to be or come to be; an end is the opposite, something that is itself naturally after something else, either necessarily or for the most part, with no other thing naturally after it; and a middle is that which is itself both after something else and has another thing after it.  Therefore, well-organized stories must neither begin from wherever they may happen to nor end where they may happen to, but must have the look that has been described.

Aristotle’s comments in Poetics lay the foundation for refinement developed later by Christopher Nolan in several of his films.

The Prestige explores story using a series of recollections. The audience has no sense of time. The only concept of time is as the characters reveal events.  The film plays through slowly uncovering to the audience a missing or vital moment in the story.  The audience is shown two men and learns about their history from the men’s writings and encounters.  When Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) receives Robert Angier’s (Hugh Jackman) diary the scene moves from Christian Bale in an English prison to Hugh Jackman riding a North American train reading the writings of Alfred Borden.

Memento takes linear storytelling and turns it on its head.  The narrator and main character of the story suffers from short-term memory loss the film is played in increments.  Each increment is the amount of time or sequence the narrator can remember.  A better description is the sequences are his experiences as he remains aware or before he forgets his immediate frame of thought.  At the same time the audience is shown black and white sequences from another point and time narrator also tells the audience a story from his past, which could also imply the narrator’s lost touch with reality.

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) is a man looking for justice but cannot make new memories and in time begins questioning his old memories.  Through out the film we see Pierce thinking and analyzing situations around him.  Shelby is constantly searching for his role in situations.  The story is seen completely out of chronological order.

A common method used on both of these films is their appeal to the logic of the audience. The audience can discover the sequence of events by inferring their logical order.


Memento only implies the narrator’s living in a false reality. Inception, on the other hand, thoroughly questions the narrator’s reality. Inception is shown through a subjective reality. Time is a small factor of Inception, but unlike Memento and The Prestige not utilized in such a complex manner.  The audience follows Mr. Cobb, an extractor or thief of sorts, on a journey through dreams and by the end of the film we find ourselves asking, “Did the dream ever really end?” In Inception, Nolan plays with the idea of reality opposed to the idea of time in Memento and The Prestige. The main character is our subject and we experience the story with him. Mr. Cobb’s reality becomes the audience’s reality.

Written by narrativeinart

January 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm

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